Euthanasia is the hardest decision a pet lover will ever make, and it doesn't get any easier, no matter how many times you make it.
Your veterinarian can offer you advice and your friends can offer you support, but no one can make the decision for you. When you live with an old or terminally ill pet, you look in its eyes every morning and ask yourself: Is this the day?
It's impossible to know for sure.
There are those who do not wait until their pet's discomfort becomes pain, and choose euthanasia much sooner than many people would. There are those who use an animal's appetite as the guide -- when an old or ill animal is no longer interested in eating, they reason, it's not interested in anything at all. And there are those who wait until there's no doubt the time is at hand.
Each guideline is the right one, for some pets and some owners at some times. You do the best you can, and then you try to put the decision behind you and deal with the grief.
Euthanasia is not a topic I bring up often, and I know it is as hard to read about as it is to write about. But many of you are asking the questions today, and every one of us who isn't will be on another day.
Yet many people don't know what their options are with a dying pet, and feel too close to tears to get the answers for themselves. Sometimes, finding out without having to ask makes everything seem a bit easier.
It's ironic that the incredible advances in veterinary medicine in the last decade or so have made the decisions even more difficult for many people.
Not too long ago, the best you could do for a seriously ill pet was to make it comfortable until that wasn't possible anymore. Nowadays, nearly every advantage of human medicine -- from chemotherapy to pacemakers -- is available to our pets.
If you can afford such care and have a realistic expectation that it will improve your pet's life -- instead of simply prolonging it -- then it is an option that should be pursued. But let nothing, including your own conscience, push you into making a decision based on guilt or wishful thinking.
Euthanasia is a gift of love we cannot offer to others of our own species, no matter how much we sometimes wish we could. It is a kindness extended to a treasured pet, a decision we make at a great cost to ourselves.
Even when you've decided it's time to say goodbye, there are other decisions to be made. Should you be with your pet at the end? What should you do with the remains? The questions are all difficult, but there are no wrong answers.
Some people choose to attend the euthanasia, to ensure that the pet not be in the company of strangers in its final moments.
As performed by a veterinarian, euthanasia is a quick and peaceful process. The animal is unconscious within seconds, and dead within less than a minute; the euphemism "put to sleep" is a perfect description. Those who attend the procedure come away reassured that their pet felt no fear or pain.
There are people who say staying with a pet at its death is the final gift of love, but no decision you make regarding the last few minutes of an animal's life will change the love you shared for the years that preceded those final moments. If you wish to be there, then by all means stay. But leaving euthanasia to your veterinarian is no less a humane and loving gesture.
It's important to take care of yourself at this difficult time. Some people -- the "it's-just-an-animal" crowd -- will not understand your feelings and will shrug off your grief as foolish. The company of other animal-lovers is very important. Seek them out to share your feelings, and ask a special friend or family member to help you take your pet to the veterinarian, and to drive you home afterward.
There are many ways to handle your pet's remains. The choices include having your municipal animal-control department pick up the body, burying the pet in your back yard or at another site (with the land owner's permission, of course), arranging for cremation, or contracting with a pet cemetery for full services and burial.
A backyard burial is perhaps the most common choice, at least for all but the largest pets. (Check with local authorities to make ,, sure it's legal in your area.) Appropriate markers include large rocks or slabs of stone, or a tree or rosebush. Even if you choose not to have your pet's body or ashes returned, it may soothe you to place a memorial in a special spot.
Many people are surprised at the powerful emotions that erupt after a pet's death, and they are embarrassed by their grief. It may help to remember that pets have meaning in our lives beyond the love we feel for the animal itself. Often we don't realize we are grieving not only for the pet we loved, but also for the special time it represented.
You may find it helpful to talk to others about your pet's death. Many areas now have pet-loss support groups that can be helpful. To locate one, contact your community's mental-health referral service, or check with your veterinarian, humane society or the nearest veterinary teaching hospital. One national resource is the pet-loss hotline at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Volunteer veterinary students staff the free service from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time Mondays through Fridays at (916) 752-4200.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278